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Wind and the chimes

It was early summer and cold. The window of the Tea House was opened just a crack and the wind was fierce and strong. It kept blowing the wind chimes that hung outside from the eve of the roof.

They were loud and harsh, not like their usual soft, tonal chiming. It was distracting. I wanted the peaceful silence, the bird song, the sound of squirrels jumping on the roof.

Then I realized that I could use that distraction to come back to my breath. It seems so obvious now. It’s something we always practice in zazen. Come back to the breath. Count from one to ten, then back again.

Even though I’ve been practicing this for over thirty years – it was new. I realized that everything could be a reminder to come back to the present, even things that are difficult. At once, I felt grateful for everything. I felt that everything supported my life: the discordant bells, the birds, the sound of the train, traffic from the road, the laughter of kids playing next door.

Zazen is always new and full of surprises – to be more accurate, this life is always new and full of surprises.

The great Zen master Hakuin had a similar experience.  He was sitting in a place like the Tea House. He had been sitting for five days for sesshin. His mind was lucid and quiet. It was an early dawn morning, the light was dim, and he heard the crows outside waking up. When the temple bell rang he realized, “That ringing. That ringing! That is me ringing! That is me ringing!

His still and clear mind had been pierced through by the bell’s sound, and that and every moment was full of deep wonder.

My mother’s blanket chest

It’s late May in New York and today I switched over my winter clothes for summer ones. Soon it will be very hot. I clear out the sweaters and pants I’ve been wearing all winter from the top shelf of my closet.

I store them  in my mother’s old Yankee blanket chest.


In order to make room for the winter clothes I take out the summer ones that are  folded in with old blankets and assorted tee shirts. I wonder why I hold on to some things.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to fit into a pair of pants that are a size too small or wear the blouse that never really worked but has a wonderful fabric.

I can’t bear to throw them away.

Today I found piles of well worn, white, long and short sleeved tee shirts and three or four ripped black yoga pants. Ripped at the seams where the legs meet the seat.

These are the clothes I used to wear under my faded Zen robe when I went to Dai Bosatsu Monastery for sesshin, a seven day silent meditation retreat.

The temperature in the zendo was often in the low 60s during the winter months and I put layer upon layer of these clothes on top of silk underwear plus a cashmere sweater to keep warm. The trick was not to move during sitting because the slightest breeze would get me shaking with the cold.

I miss those days. I miss that intense practice. I burned with a love for it that went beyond hot and cold, beyond body and mind. Those clothes, all worn and ready for next time, will probably not be used again.

After over 35 years of practice at Dai Bosatsu and now in my late 60s, I doubt that I’ll ever again have the wonderful opportunity to throw myself wholeheartedly into anything as exquisite, demanding, and wild.

Except of course this life as it is right now.

I will continue to keep those old tee shirts and ripped pants in my mother’s blanket chest – in memory and with a deep bow of gratitude.






So cold it’s cold

Third Sunday morning Zen in the Tea House

It was 17 degrees this morning and all week we’ve been in deep January cold. The tea house is warmed by a single electric heater, but today it was challenged to keep the room cozy and warm. I thought I’d talk about a koan from the Blue Cliff Record, Tozan’s “No Cold or Heat.”  

Here’s a black and white Zen painting of a bamboo ladle with the words “When it’s hot, be hot”. This refers to Tozan’s reply to the monk who asked “Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?”

Tozan said, “Why don’t you go where there is no cold or heat?”

The monk then said “Where is that place?”

Tozan replied, “When cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.”

Remember that Tozan was living in Sung dynasty China in the 9th century. What was his life like then? Surely there were no electric heaters to warm even the smallest space. I imagine Tozan as small and robust. Someone you wouldn’t want to tangle with. But meet him then, or meet him now, his response still cuts to the quick.

But I might phrase his answer in a softer tone…

We talked about this koan and how it relates to Zen practice. Many new students since Tozan’s time have been given the instruction, “Count your exhalation from one to ten, and then start over. “

This sounds very simplistic yet it’s quite hard to do. And it’s not counting like you ordinarily do in school or when you’re adding up things on your fingers. It’s diving into that count and exhalation with all your might. That’s what Tozan is saying. Live every moment so completely that you are nothing but it. Nothing but hot, or cold, or THIS very moment.

This morning it was wonderful to be together in the warm tea house on such a cold day, sitting silently, afterwards sharing a cup of tea and talking together about our practice.

Then Emily Dickenson showed up. Not literally of course, since she died quite a long while ago, but her words came alive as this poem was recited.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

 Someone said, “Emily was hot. She lived her life hot.”

Thank you Emily. Thank you Tozan.